Deepak Dobriyal, the Eternal Wingman

Bollywood

Deepak Dobriyal, the Eternal Wingman

Illustration: Akshita Monga

F

or a non-viewer of How I Met Your Mother, the word wingman might not hold any currency. But just think of Saif Ali Khan from the mid-’90s. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Nearly a decade spent playing second fiddle, right beside the male lead. Saif managed to break out of that mould by leveraging his clout in the industry and tackling darker, more layered characters, thereby reinventing himself and even taking home an award or two. But Deepak Dobriyal – Pappi Ji to the average movie-goer, Bhati to a more discerning one – still awaits his moment in the sun.

The pattern was repeated in Kaalakaandi, their last release, where Dobriyal was back doing what the industry has come to believe he does best. Saif, meanwhile, ran away with all the acclaim for his bold turn in a central role. With the long delayed Kuldip Patwal: I Didn’t Do It finally releasing today, one wonders whether it will propel Dobriyal any closer to the attention long due to him.

For whether it is Pappi from Tanu Weds Manu, Rajju in Omakra, or Bhati from Gulaal, Dobriyal, in his limited screen-time, has crafted unforgettable characters. The more this actor retreats into the background, the more memorable the character becomes. There’s no better evidence of this than last year’s Hindi Medium where Dobriyal played the large-hearted, chawl-residing Shyamprakash Kori. The actor’s complete grasp over his comic timing ensured that he stole scenes right from under Irrfan Khan’s nose; ably turning Kori’s unassuming naivete into full-blown comedy. In the film, Dobriyal is as much in his elements when he helps Khan clean the floor of his own house, assuming he’s the servant there, as he is when he manufactures an accident to raise money for Khan.

His peculiar talent lies in playing the sidekick with consummate ease and allowing the lead to remain in the foreground, as demanded by the script, while simultaneously bringing into sharp relief a character brimming with life. A vine, not a creeper. His dextrous switches between comic and tragic modes – often instantaneous – imbue a character with a wide emotional range, that possibly goes beyond his remit. We are swept along, our attention seldom wavering from the magnetic performance.  

If the trailer is anything to go by, Patwal seems to be in the thick of the action.

The film business, like any other industry, prefers its goods packaged in neat, little boxes. It seeks a sense of order, which it considers vital to its sustenance. This keeps the surface nice and glossy, but it looks all too bland and monochrome from a distance. The farther you are from the inner circle, the duller it appears. Filed away inside boxes marked comic and wingman, Dobriyal struggles hard to rise above the role apportioned to him. In recent interviews, he’s divulged his desire for a change of image. When something resembling change did come, like his starring, negative role in Ram Gopal Varma’s Not A Love Story, the film’s systemic failure to engage the audience swallowed his stirring performance whole.   

Dobriyal is a product of the theatre circuit. He honed his acting skills under the tutelage of Arvind Gaur, a theatre director who’s given many famous names to Bollywood. This average-looking, reed-thin Garhwali manages to cut a powerful presence in every film. He chews away the scenery with emphatic dialogue delivery, without leaving the lead character in the lurch. Think of his turn as Rajjan “Rajju” Tiwari in Omkara, where he’s madly in love with Dolly, and simultaneously ferocious in his intent to incite Langda Tyagi to commit violence.

There’s a scene in the film that perfectly encapsulates the character’s twin sensibilities where Langda Tyagi dares him to jump into the water to prove both his guts and love for Dolly. Rajju doesn’t know how to swim, but still dives in. A moment after he’s fished out of the water by Langda Tyagi, Dobriyal incisively turns the helpless scene on its head by his sinister act. He accuses Langda Tyagi of being the one with no guts, chiding him for staying mum when Omi chose Kesu over him as his successor. In that moment, Langda Tyagi’s joking face turns ashen, making the hurt palpable on his face. Even as we are aware of the presence of perhaps the more powerful actor of the two, the other character’s centrality to the story is never compromised.

With the long delayed Kuldip Patwal: I Didn’t Do It finally releasing today, one wonders whether it will propel Dobriyal any closer to the attention long due to him.

Colour Yellow Productions

In Kuldip Patwal, his upcoming film, Dobriyal plays the titular common man, a grocer thrown in jail for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. This courtroom drama has been in the works for a long time now. Its release date has been pushed month to month. If the trailer is anything to go by, Patwal seems to be in the thick of the action. One can hazard a guess that it should provide Dobriyal with enough room to manoeuvre through a wide range of emotional states.

If provided with substantial screen time, it might just be the role he’s been itching to play. From the confusion of dust-filled streets to a reeking jail and later the stolidity of the courtroom, he might finally be able to loosen his sackful of acting skills and run riot with them.

It took years for a talent as gargantuan as Nawazuddin Siddiqui to crawl into the spotlight. From the man on the edge of the long shot through to the sidekick and the leading man as we now recognise him today, his journey was as painful as it was seemingly endless. Sitting as he did beside Saif Ali Khan on the edge of the bridge in Omkara, having taken innumerable leaps into uncharted waters previously, it is time Dobriyal receives the push that sees him plumb depths he’s not accessed before.

When he breaks through the surface of the water and gulps air altogether stranger and sweeter, we might discover a side of this marvellous actor we thought we would never see. Perhaps then Bollywood will sit up to take notice and gingerly break into deafening applause meant solely for him.

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